Venetie Volleyball

On Thursday, six kids from Venetie flew to Arctic Village to play volleyball. We’ve been planning this for a while with their principal, and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was just the germ of an idea.

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Venetie and Arctic have a complex relationship. They are partners in land ownership and governance, but there is some animosity between them. Arctic gets a lot of visitors and attention from outside, and I think there’s a perception in Venetie that Arctic is kind of stuck up. Venetie is a rougher village. There seems to be more crime and drinking and ugliness there (though I am not convinced that this is as it seems). Arctic kids grow up with an aversion to things Venetie. When I wore my Wolfpack hoodie this fall, they would call me a “mutt” and make rude comments about people from Venetie. The kids from the two villages snipe at each other over social media, even though they have hardly met in person.

I love those Venetie kids wholeheartedly. I latched on to them over the year and a half I was their teacher, and they mean the moon to me. When kids here say unkind things about them (people from Venetie suck: so and so is mean) I take it pretty hard. This visit was an opportunity to chip away at that prejudice a little.

Thursday, we mixed the groups and played Shipwreck, a team building game where you have to get everyone on your team across the gym before the other team. The challenge: the floor is lava. We gave them tools, (rope, hula hoops, a single roller skate, a scooter) and we set up a few islands. It was great watching them solve problems and come up with creative ways to use the items.

Later, we had them work in teams to make and clean up after a shared dinner, and after dinner we opened the gym for casual volleyball for a few hours. Geoff and I had ordered a glow-in the dark ball, and I had all the kids sign it with highlighters. We set up black-lights on the stanchions and passed out glow sticks for wristbands, then turned out the gym lights. It was pretty spectacular. G’s teeth glowed in the blacklight.

Friday was tournament day, and there was a lot to do, but we took the afternoon off from preparations to get out and enjoy the suddenly warm (-15?) weather. I set some kids up with skis during PE and Geoff set some others up with snowboards. At 1:30 we headed out to the lake. The truck dropped us off beyond the airport, and we skied or walked the rest of the way.

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I skied, and it was blissful. It’s been too cold to ski most of this winter, not because I’m a pansy but because there’s a temperature at which skis just stick instead of gliding. I pulled ahead of the kids and took a picture of them all trekking in the snowmachine trail across the lake to the spot Geoff had chosen for a fire.

dsc05375Geoff drove his snowmachine back and forth, picking up kids in the sled and hauling them out to the fire. I bummed a ride down the lake and back once, before all the kids lined up to try it, whether on snowboards or skis. L was awesome on a snowboard. dsc05384They heckled Eddie, the principal from Venetie, until he got on a snowboard and gave it a try. C, a 7th grader from Arctic, rode backwards on the machine behind Geoff, giggling. The kids kept a great fire going the whole time, and heated water for tea. Everyone had a blast, and no one complained about the long walk out or the chilly ride back to school in the back of the truck.

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We were all exhausted by the time we got back to school, but the day’s activities weren’t done. I led a team in pizza-making, and sweet P from Venetie made cake for everyone to share.

After dinner, the moment was finally upon us. We scrambled to figure out the scoreboard, find a whistle, and organize the kids into reasonable teams (we had to have two teams from Arctic). At 7:30, the games began.

Folks from the village showed up and cheered for both teams, which made me glad. I admit to secretly cheering for the Venetie kids: I could see their nerves, their courage, and their determination clearly on their well-loved faces, whereas the Arctic kids were perfectly relaxed and at home. All the kids played great games, with Venetie losing to both Arctic teams by only a point or two.

After the two schools played, a village team was organized, and they played a few games against mixed student teams. I like that the kids ended the volleyball tournament by playing together. It reinforced what the trip was supposed to be all about (in my mind).

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The kids stayed and watched a movie in my classroom until midnight. I was dragging by that time, completely done-in by the long days. When the Arctic kids finally went home and the Venetie kids finally headed to bed (“bye,” said G as the Arctic kids put on their snowpants in the hall, “it was really nice to meet you”), I was more than ready to get home and into my warm, blessedly horizontal bed.

In the morning, I went over to the school to have breakfast with the Venetie kiddos before the plane came. They were still sleeping when I got there, so I got to read the note they’d written on my board and leak some tears before they woke up.

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A few Arctic kids showed up for breakfast, but they didn’t stay long, so I got to spend a little alone-time with my girls, and that meant a lot to me. The relationship I have with them is nothing like my relationship with the kids here. They feel more like family than like students, and I told them how proud I am of their courage, grace and humor. They gave me all the gossip – who has a new baby in the village, which Venetie girl has a crush on which Arctic boy and so on. A has matured so much since last year, and she is standing up straighter, proud of her bright mind and smile. G has grown into her height – she’s become a confident, stunning young woman. P is so much less volatile now, and she lets her kindness show through more. As usual, C is perfectly herself. I’ve really missed them.

Arctic is traveling to Venetie for a rematch in the spring. The girls are determined to give us a warm welcome and show us a good time. I can’t wait to visit and see what they come up with.

 

Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?

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Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.

It happened so fast!

At the moment, I’m in Anchorage with a group of girls from Arctic Village. This is their annual Native Youth Olympics field trip, and I’m the female chaperone, borrowed from the next village over.

There’s no snow on the ground here, and it rained on the way down from Fairbanks yesterday. There are tiny green leaves on the trees.

On Sunday I put the Sassy White Bravo away for the last time this season. When I get back to Venetie in a week and a half, there won’t be snow on the ground. I returned my skis to gym storage, too. It was a hard day, Sunday. It seemed like winter would last forever, and then suddenly it was over.

As a last hurrah, Ben and I and our visiting student teacher, Addie, took the SWB on its most epic adventure so far. We rode out maybe six miles to the north, the farthest I’ve been along that trail, and started a fire. Terri had given us a foil packet of moose meat, so we set it in among the coals to cook while we went skiing.

It was a gorgeous, warm sunny day. The snow was thick and slick and slushy, and we flew over it fast and sure, hatless and gloveless in our t-shirts.

On the way back, I skied behind the snowmachine – a handy way to move a third body, and a lot of fun. You fly back there, bumping over the ice at a ripping ten or fifteen miles per hour. The trail opened up and I practiced skiing off to the side of the machine in an open area that had been solid ice hours earlier. It happened so fast – all of a sudden I was flying face-first into the deep slush. My skis had sunk into the heavy snow and hooked. I pitchpoled and wound up with ice in my teeth.

I was fine and came up laughing. It’s hard to hurt yourself in the deep, thick, pillowy white spring snow.

But oh, it happened so fast, this spring. It’s suddenly almost summer, and the goodbyes have already begun: Goodbye, snow. Goodbye, skiing. Goodbye, kiddoes.

And goodbye, Venetie.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching in Arctic Village next year.

Still. It happened so fast.

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Beautiful northern lights at midnight last week

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Spring Carnival

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the women’s snowshoe race

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skiing on Big Lake

I’m on my way to a new adventure, but I’m savoring every moment I have left with my kids and in the village, and lingering over the small farewells.

Inservice

My district doesn’t have a spring break, but between third and fourth quarter we have one week of inservice. Inservice, this year, was held in Fort Yukon, which was a major disappointment. In the past, inservice has been in Fairbanks, where we had hotel rooms and the opportunity to go shopping (I’m talking grocery shopping here, not recreational shopping – this is a big deal for bush teachers) and eat out at restaurants. For most people, this inservice meant sleeping on classroom floors and eating cafeteria food. For Geoff and me, it meant camping out.

Last Friday, I made cookies and raspberry bars and dozens of morning glory muffins. I froze it all, along with some beef stew, to get ready for the trip. Fall inservice was in Fort Yukon, too, and the only reason I didn’t die of starvation that week (I’m not big on cafeteria food) was beer (Fort Yukon is not a dry village, like Venetie and Arctic). Geoff showed up late on Friday night with a broken swing arm on his snowmachine. We spent Saturday getting ready and fixing his machine (the replacement swing arm he procured from someone in the village didn’t fit quite right, and rubbed against the steering rod dealie, which made left turns awkward). We took off on Sunday.

I didn’t feel ready to take the sassy white Bravo out for such a big adventure (Fort Yukon is fifty miles from here,  by trail) so I rode on the back of Geoff’s snowmachine. It was windy, but not too cold. I saw my first lynx running across a slough ahead of us, long-legged and elegant. The trail was narrow and brushy, so we had to dodge sproingy, whippy twigs the whole way, but it wasn’t a difficult ride, and I almost regretted leaving my machine in Venetie until we hit the Christian River.

The Christian River is narrow and steep-sided, so once you get down one bank, there’s nothing for it but to gun it up the opposite side – you’d never get up without that momentum. For us, the problem was a branch that lay right across the trail at head height. Geoff couldn’t stop and I couldn’t see it, and as we roared up the far bank, there was this awful knocking sound that came from inside my skull. We both came away reeling from hitting that same branch head-on.

By then it was getting dark, we’d made about thirty miles of the fifty we needed, and we’d passed the major hurdle of the trip. Our heads were both spinning, and the place was perfect, so we decided to camp beside the trail at the top of the riverbank. The river must have flooded at some point, because there was dead wood everywhere. Geoff started gathering wood for a fire while I untied the sled.

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The sled, fully loaded with the bare minimum for a week of inservice fun!

Over the course of a month, Geoff broke well over half the hundred miles of trail he rode to get to Venetie from Arctic. You can’t break trail with a heavily-loaded sled, so on the way down, he left the tent and chainsaw and other useful stuff at a camp he’d set up weeks before, close to his end of the trail. He’d planned to go back for those things at some point, but breaking trail took longer than expected, and when he made it to Venetie, he was limping on a busted swing arm.

All this is to say that when we stopped for the night, we didn’t have the usual amenities: no tent, no cots, no chainsaw, no woodstove to heat the tent we didn’t have. There was plenty of dry wood, and building a fire was no problem without the chainsaw. We collected the soft tips of spruce branches and laid them out on the snow for a mattress, then laid the tarps over that, and wrapped up in the biggest tarp to sleep. Geoff bungeed his rifle to a tree by our heads and kept a flare gun and the bear spray that lives in my backpack close at hand. I had my awesome sleeping bag (thank you, Pat in Tulsa) and I never felt the cold as I laid out on my back that night and watched the aurora dance between the treetops.

In the morning, I used the little white gas stove I typically take backpacking to heat some stew for breakfast and to boil snow for coffee, tea, and the day’s drinking water. Geoff fed the fire and repacked the sled. My sleeping bag hung on a line between two trees, steaming away the night’s accumulated ice and moisture from snowmelt (which finds its way through tarps and spruce boughs effortlessly) and breathing (which ices the top of the bag very much like it ices neckwarmers). We had only twenty miles to go, and we had until 1:00 pm to get there, so we took our time breaking camp.

We’d thought we might find a new campsite on the way into town, but ran too late to stop and look. It’s a good thing we didn’t try to push it, too: we got lost on the river just outside of town, spinning in endless, windy sloughs, looking for a GPS point that claimed to be Fort Yukon, but definitely wasn’t. By the time we got straightened out and found our way to the village and then to the school, we had cut it as close as we could. We walked through the cafeteria doors at exactly 1:00, shedding snow from our outer layers and pink in the face from the biting wind on the river, but on time.

We didn’t get out in daylight that evening to find the best trail out of town. We went looking for it in the dark, but after Geoff nearly drove the snowmachine and sled off a too-steep bank, we called it quits and threw the tarp down in a ditch at the end of the road. It was a nice enough ditch with a great view of the sky, and no one came by that night, but that was a low point, for sure. When he started snoring I almost strapped on my skis and headed back to town, only stopping because I didn’t want to ski alone through an unfamiliar village in the middle of the night.

After that, things improved. We found a beautiful camp about six and a half miles out of town on the bank of a slough with plenty of dead wood for fires.  I flattened a broad area and made a thick bed of spruce tips. Geoff started a fire and stockpiled wood. We arrived late, windburnt and frosty almost every day, carrying into the cafeteria with us the valuables we couldn’t leave strapped to the sled on Fort Yukon’s main drag, making a total spectacle of ourselves. Geoff borrowed a chainsaw to help with the firewood situation, and we were living pretty comfortably.

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Ben skied out with me one night, and I was alone at camp for a few hours while Geoff ran Ben back to town and spent some time visiting folks who were staying with a friend in the village. I had started feeling sick (this happens to me during inservice – I missed a day of last spring’s inservice, too) while Ben and I were skiing, and those few hours I lay in my sleeping bag, feeling weak and woozy, waiting for Geoff to come back, watching it start to snow, and wondering how much time had passed, were some of the scariest and most awesome of my life. I don’t think most people ever get to be that isolated. It’s humbling. I was convinced something was wrong, that Geoff and Ben had fallen through the ice into the river, that I was about to be eaten by wolves, that half the night had gone by. Every choice became heavy: gather more wood and keep the fire going, or stay warm in the sleeping bag? Grab the rifle you don’t know how to use in case you need it, or leave it be because you’re more likely to hurt yourself with it than protect yourself? Stay put and wait for Geoff/rescue/morning, or take off on skis and try to make it to the safety of the school in Fort Yukon?

In reality, I was absolutely fine. Between the fire and the sleeping bag, I was at no risk of getting cold. No animals ever bothered our camp, and I had bear spray handy just in case. It never crossed Geoff’s mind that I’d worry or panic (he’s used to being alone, especially out in the woods). If he thought about it at all, he assumed I felt able to take care of myself (which is flattering, but off-base) so my relief when he finally made it back took him completely by surprise.

Sometimes, he doesn’t realize how new I am at this. He forgets that I’ve been in Alaska only a year. I’m making myself at home here, for sure, but it’s all very new. “How are your wood-chopping skills,” Geoff asked me yesterday as I lounged in the sleeping bag, loathe to get up, even though he’d lit a crackling fire and the sun was sweeping around the corner of the slough, nearly fully lighting the sky.

“Nonexistent,” I replied, and his eyebrows shot up.

“Really?!”

“Really.”

“Well I saved these nice pieces for you. You can try it out. But first, can you pull out your stove and boil some water for coffee?”

I chose clean snow from the slough and filled Geoff’s thermos with coffee while he started working on replacing the swing arm with the correct part he’d ordered from Fairbanks and had sent to Fort Yukon. On breaks, he showed me how to use the axe without cutting off my feet. I made him turn his back (no peeking) when I first tried it out, but I got comfortable enough for an audience by the end of the day.

It was a good day, yesterday. Geoff worked on his machine, calling me over to hold this or find that stupid little thing he’d lost in the snow. I lounged by the fire, cooking porkchops and caribou and boiling snow and reading my book and singing and bantering and laughing. It felt so good to relax and enjoy the beautiful day. Sleeping out is all very well, but living out is the real treat, and inservice hadn’t allowed for daylight hours to enjoy at camp.

DSC04504We wanted to cross the Christian River before dark, so in the late afternoon, we had to pack up and go. It started snowing around the time we took off, and pretty soon the wind picked up and dark fell. The trip wasn’t too bad; even crossing the Christian River was fine. It was just a long haul. We made it back to Venetie around midnight, cold and exhausted, and more or less collapsed without taking a single thing off the sled.

By this morning, the sled, the snowmachine and the world were blanketed in fresh snow. Geoff didn’t take off until late this afternoon (he’s famously slow out of the gate) and he has to make the hundred miles to Arctic by morning. I rode out across Big Lake with him on my machine and saw him off on the trail north. He’s out there now, plowing through the drifts the new snow and the wind must have kicked over his trail in the past week, loving it because this is what he loves to do.

I’m hoping, for our next adventure, I’ll get to help with caribou. Now that the trail’s broken, it’s not such a huge deal to plan adventures with Geoff, and he’s seen caribou between here and Arctic. Who knows?